Given my love for all things Star Trek, including fun parodies of Star Trek, I thought we’d delve into two new shows in the next couple of posts and look at the success or failure of their respective world-building schemes: Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville. This isn’t a debate over which is better or worse in relation to the ultimate Star Trek fandom. I have my own opinions on that and shall strive to keep them to myself since I know how divisive that is at the moment. All I want to examine is the way the shows have created their universes and whether or not they can hold up over time.
Now, for my own benefit, we’re going to start with the happier of the two shows. The Orville. This is a very interesting show in one sense of world-building, but also a show that is severely lacking in world-building in another sense. We’re going to look at them separately, because I think each affects the simultaneous success and failure of the universe as a whole.
For those who haven’t seen the show, let’s take a quick look at the premise. After a year of self-destructive behavior triggered by catching his wife in bed with another (alien) man, Capt. Ed Mercer is given command of the spaceship Orville and it’s unique crew of aliens and humans. Unfortunately his first officer ends up being his own ex-wife and awkward adventures ensue.
Whether you enjoy Seth MacFarland’s brand of slightly crude comedy (which is not as prevalent as in others of his shows, but is still a recognizable feature), The Orville definitely has the heart of a Star Trek show covered over in the comedic tone and aesthetic of a parody. The juxtaposition of the surprisingly well-treated topics with the dick-joke level of humor creates a fun show that doesn’t take itself seriously at all. And that, my dear Spock, is the problem.
The first aspect of world-building that is strangely successful is, unfortunately, not of The Orville‘s own creation. It hearkens back so intensely to the 90’s era of Star Trek shows, specifically Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), that any avid Trekkie is able to immediately fall into the nature of the world without the show offering any serious world-building of its own. The clean sets, the colored uniforms, bridge crew of main characters, even the green and black theme of the Krell enemies are reminiscent of the Borg ships. It says loud and clear we want to remind you of everything familiar from Star Trek.
And you know what, it works. I have no question that this show is going to bring in alien creatures who we may fight, but who we’ll try to make peace with or help. I know this isn’t a world where the main characters are going to die randomly three episodes in. I’m ready to accept that Earth is unified and has created relationships of mutual benefit with many alien worlds. I can do this, because that’s how TNG functioned, and The Orville wants me to see it as a universe like TNG.
Unfortunately that’s the best world-building it manages to do. It’s own universe is inconsistent, the gravest sin any universe can commit. A great deal of this inconsistency comes from the style of comedy the show engages in, and we can hope that as the series progresses we will gain a more stable and fleshed out universe to compensate for the humor issues.
So what do I mean by problems with the comedy? The show is set 400 years into the future but the conversations that occur feel very natural to the present day. That works in the show’s favor in terms of character dynamics, creating a more casual ‘workplace environment’ for the characters to interact with each other and some very fun moments when aliens are shoved into conversations without understanding the subtext. But when it comes to world-building, it doesn’t make sense at all.
Think about the kind of language that was used 400 years ago. That puts us in the year 1617. Can you think of slang that was used during this time? How about popular books of the period? Would you be able to quote from it in casual conversation? Perhaps you know what composers were actively writing? Can you reference any popular event during this period?
Maybe you can answer one of those questions, or maybe you’re a history buff and know them all, but chances are you have only a vague notion of what happened during this time period let alone have a thorough understanding of its slang, references, and cultural significance. So why would it make sense that the future would freeze culture in the 21st century and recycle the same references and quotes for 400 years? The fact is, it doesn’t, and that may very well be the downfall of the show.
At this point you may be saying, but Star Trek has always included references to the recent era, and you’d be right. How they used those references are very different, though. TNG had Picard’s enjoyment of old literature, Deep Space 9 (DS9) had Sisko’s obsession with baseball, and Voyager has Paris’s love of 20th century cinema. By infusing the show with a single character who invested time into an aspect of the past, often to the confusion of those around him, these references don’t overwhelm the rest of the universe being built.
That is The Orville‘s problem. Too many characters understand too much of the present day. It makes the universe hollow, since it relies so much on the culture of the present day. And while the stories are engaging and the characters relationships incredibly fun to watch, it also feels very much like people from our own world pretending to live in the future. It refuses to offer the universe the potential to create, because it’s bogged down in our culture.
Now, to be fair, The Orville has done a good job in the episodes that explore the cultures of the alien races. Bortus’s single-gendered race is intriguing and I hope we see more of them. Most recently Isaac, the superior-to-humans artificial intelligence, had a great episode with Dr. Finn and her sons. And the Krill infiltration episode was incredibly well done. They are probably the most fleshed out race in the universe because of that episode, and they don’t have a single main character of that race. But ultimately all these episodes can’t balance the amount of stories that fail to develop humans in the 25th century.
I’m not sure that The Orville could be as successful as it is without the instant recognition to TNG and other Star Trek properties. It fills in the gaps that, so far, the writer’s have left, intentionally or not, in The Orville‘s universe. But unless it bolsters its own history, I fear the show will become a dated relic. Fun to watch perhaps, but lacking the universality that would sustain it over decades. It has the appearance of Galaxy Quest and the writing strength of any Star Trek show, but if they don’t build up their own world, they won’t be able to create the lasting universe that will make viewers want to stay exploring the stars with them.